Roman decadence goes full throttle in Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), the story of a privileged class living the spoils of unbridled indulgence. Except this is the present day in the ancient capital. Selected as Italy's submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration this year, the country's leisure classes live an intoxicating mix of frivolity, riches, the bizarre and emptiness. The film reunites filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and his frequent lead star Toni Servillo (Il Divo, The Consequences of Love) whose character Jep Gambardella, a notable author whose star has a much faded luster, helps keep the party in full throttle. Now approaching retirement age, he is nevertheless cultured, entertaining and painting the town red at nearly ever turn. And as Rome is a town unlike any other, Sorrentino presents it with exuberant allure and flare.
After a stranger shows up at his bachelor pad, Jep has a chance to look past the heaping rounds of nightclubs, parties and lavish decadence to discover a timeless beauty. He may even begin writing once more. The bacchanalia that guides the viewer through The Great Beauty is peppered with humorous moments. A Japanese tourist is overcome by the grandeur that is the Eternal City, a mature stripper accompanies Jep to some fancy soirees and a revered Cardinal rumored to be the next pope is much more into his meal preparation than any questions of a spiritual nature.
FilmLinc spoke to director Paolo Sorrentino about The Great Beauty ahead of its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, currently underway. Sorrentino discusses the film's simple yet unconventional storytelling, his love of Rome and its kinship to another ode to the Eternal City, Fellini's La Dolce Vita. He also shares his thoughts on how Italy's charismatic, ostentatious (and perhaps outrageous) former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi manifests in the feature that is one of the most beautiful to hit the big screen this year.
FilmLinc: This film has a non-traditional structure and a sumptuous, even dreamy aesthetic. What was your intention in how to tell this story?
Paolo Sorrentino: The structure is very simple. The main character goes to the people and the world and is at the same time is an observer of these worlds and is a part of them. It's very simple really. The [original] idea was to have many characters and ideas, but when I wrote it and found one character that could unite all these stories together, that's what I did. One of the ideas of the movie is that beauty is everywhere. Going around Rome you can find beauty because, quite simply, Rome is very beautiful. But the beauty of the people is sometimes harder to discover. This movie tries to find the beauty that's hidden or unknown. It's a journey toward the beauty of life and also its opposite. One of the great opportunities the movie allows is to find beauty no matter what.
FL: During the waning years of Silvio Berlusconi as Italy's prime minister, there was a famous quote by him — or perhaps infamous — when he was asked about the growing economic malaise the country was facing, and his response was roughly: “Well the restaurants are full, the planes are full and people should invest in Italy because the secretaries are beautiful…” It was like beauty and pleasure were somehow a veneer masking a real crisis.
PS: It's a temptation of some Latin countries. There is a childhood attitude sometimes in reaction when facing some problems. So the attitude is to “live like it's the last day of your life.” So the reaction at times is to engage in an orgy of fun or anything that will distract from the problem. What Berlusconi said exactly reflects the atmosphere in this movie.
FL: So then Berlusconi is perhaps an influence on the film?
PS. Yes, yes… The movie tries to be a story of Italy at present. Italian people reacted to the Berlusconi problem exactly like this. On the one hand they reacted with an explosion of fun, but at the same time they are sleeping. It's a duality. This dual attitude was the path the Italians chose to deal with the crisis and some countries did similarly, others did not. Every country reacted differently.
FL: I saw a documentary called Videocracy (2009), which was a bit of an indictment on big swaths of Italian society for being hypnotized by fame, fun, escapism and reality television to the detriment of the country and its proper functioning of democracy — at least that was the general argument that film made. I thought perhaps there was a thread of that in this film as well…
PS: Yes I saw Videocracy. That film describes Italy very well in that context. In my case, I didn't want to tell that same exact story. I take what it says for granted. What I set out to do is describe the feelings that are already present and that world is manifested in The Great Beauty.
FL: You've worked with actor Toni Servillo on a number of your past films and you have him again in the main role as Jep Gambardella. What did you tell him about the character before you started shooting?
PS: I usually don't say anything because I'm not good at explaining it. I gave him the script and let him get to know [the character] that way. I usually don't say anything to the actors. It works better for me because when they come to the set, they are at the same time scared and excited because they are not well aware of what will happen. I think this is a good way for the actors and me to work. I don't describe many things.
I know what I want, but it's important that they don't know what I want at the beginning. When I begin to shoot, I move them in a way that I presume is the right way. But overall I don't tell them much beyond the details that are obvious in the script.
FL: What is it about Toni Servillo in particular that attracts you? He's starred in some of your other movies including Il Divo: La spettacolare vita di Giulio Andreotti, The Consequences of Love and One Man Up.
PS: Jep is not an easy character. He is very much a chameleon. We discovered step by step when he's sincere or fake. Sometimes he's an actor within being an actor. [Servillo] knew he had to be disenchanted and cynical toward the world but in a loving way.
I relate to Jep to a great extent. He exaggerates these feelings I have as well. For example, he has disillusion towards women which is something that, fortunately, I do not feel, but I do feel a symbiosis with this character.
FL: Obviously Rome is a main character in this movie. I know someone who saw this and decided he had to fly to Rome for the weekend after seeing this. It's one of the world's great cities and it plays such an essential part of The Great Beauty.
PS: Rome is a city I love very much. I have lived there since I was a child. I had the attitude of a tourist when filming this. I feel comfortable when I can be a tourist in a city or a country. It's the same attitude when I come here. The fact that I don't know a town or a country is stimulating for me. I want to find its mystery and its secrets.
FL: While playing at festivals there have been a number of comparisons to Fellini's La Dolce Vita or Antonioni's La Notte. How much did you want to pay homage to movies like that or conversely how much did you want to distance The Great Beauty from them?
PS: It was not my intention to do an homage. I wanted it to be far from La Dolce Vita because that is a masterpiece and an important movie not only for Italian people but for people all over the world. I tried to stay far from La Dolce Vita, but I'm conscious that my idea for this movie also has some of the same themes, including the concept that emptiness is an irresistible form of attraction. That's what triggered Fellini for that movie and myself as well. It's a similarity of feeling and mood.
FL: The aesthetic is very distinctive in this film. I couldn't help but notice the stark contrasts between light and dark throughout the film and think of Caravaggio paintings, so I'm curious about what informed your style. Of course you work with your cinematographer Luca Bigazzi a number of times in the past.
PS: Caravaggio is a painter I like very much and I think he's an influence on most filmmakers. The idea of secrecy imbued in his work triggers the curiosity of many filmmakers. The way I work with my cinematographer is not based on general principles, but the ideas are triggered by the locations where we shoot. In this case, Rome and the locations we worked at are locations that are extremely fascinating, so we came up with various ideas in those locations about light. The thing I wanted to work with is to move light constantly. The way light moves throughout the day in real life, I wanted it to move in the movie.
[Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty begins its U.S. theatrical run this weekend.]